Preston (CT) Fire Chief: Few Volunteers Remain to Respond to Calls

Old fire truck

Claire Bessette

The Day, New London, Conn.

(MCT)

Mar. 6—PRESTON — With only four active and trained volunteer firefighters combined at the town’s two fire departments, fire Chief Tom Casey has renewed his annual plea for increased paid staff to answer emergency calls.

Casey presented his proposed budget to the Board of Selectmen via video conference last week, outlining three options.

Adding a second full-time firefighter/EMT at a projected cost of $72,250 would cover another 260 shifts per year.

A second option would add $50,000 to the budget to hire more part-time per diem firefighters to cover about 330 more shifts.

A third option had no new staffing and only fixed increases — 1.5% salary increase, health insurance and other increased costs — but the problem of inadequate response would continue, he said.

“I have been aggressively requesting additional paid staff for the last five years,” Casey told selectmen. “I have been raising the alarm about the decline in volunteer response, which has been occurring for more than 20 years, and things have only gotten worse.”

The town now has Casey and fire Capt. Michael Guiher as full-time firefighters and part-time per diem firefighters to cover three shifts per day, 24 hours, seven days a week. But getting volunteers for the staffing needed for many calls has been a growing problem, Casey said.

In calendar year 2020, Preston responded to 679 calls. Of those, 545 — or 80% — had no volunteer response, Casey said. Many calls were for emergency medical services, and the paid response was adequate, he said. But 89 were fire calls, and 55 of those had no volunteer response.

Another 47 of the 679 calls were for life-threatening motor vehicle accidents, requiring either fire control, extradition or both, and on 30 calls, no volunteers responded, Casey reported. On 14 of the 17 calls with some volunteer response, participants were only qualified to help with traffic control or logistics, such as handing equipment to firefighters.

Although the town budgets for at least one paid staff member on all shifts, that is not always possible, Casey said. Most of Preston’s per diem staff are paid firefighters in other towns. During a recent snowstorm, those scheduled for Preston shifts were called to work in their primary towns, he said.

“We don’t fight fires with bucket brigades anymore,” Casey said, “and in light of that, we can’t expect to continue the old emergency response system in the modern world of today. The days of the volunteer are waning. I don’t see in the immediate future a surprising growth.”

He presented another imminent issue to selectmen last week: Casey, 61, plans to retire by the end of 2021. He started as the town’s first paid fire chief in 2007. Over the years, he has worked more and more hours, stating frankly that he has been available “24/7.” He has not had a true vacation in five years, responding on many days off.

Casey’s preferred option is to hire a second full-time firefighter. Adding money for more per diem shifts would be his second choice, but he told selectmen as more local towns hire part-time firefighters — Lisbon, North Stonington and Canterbury added part-time paid staff this year — the pool of available firefighters is dwindling.

“We are not alone in this,” he said. “Really, it’s just a sign of the times; whether we like it, whether we approve of it, whether we think it’s a good thing or not, it is the future.”

First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier said the board will discuss Casey’s fire budget options at upcoming budget workshops. Selectmen must submit the proposed town budget to the Board of Finance by April 6.

Long-term, Allyn-Gauthier said the town is exploring ways to recruit more volunteer firefighters, including checking with towns that offer property tax breaks to active volunteers who respond to a minimum number of calls. Selectman Kenneth Zachem suggested the town offer to reimburse volunteers for required annual physicals.

Preston currently does not offer property tax breaks to volunteer firefighters.

“The per diems have worked well over the years, but understanding that there’s only so many firefighters in the area,” Allyn-Gauthier said. “More towns are looking to do this, so there are fewer people available.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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